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Comfort can wait, but the dream can't

What does it take to lead the artist's life in L.A.? Sacrifice, sure. Focus, of course. But when the cost of living is high and odds are low, success needs a sliding scale.

January 01, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

AT parties, David Derrico tells people he's a veterinarian, an honorable profession that he thinks makes him sound likable. In fact, he's a lawyer at an L.A. firm -- but it's not what he wants to be doing. He wants to be a writer, and, with two Internet-published science fiction books, he is. Isn't he?

Kelly and Kamille Rudisill, sisters and co-founders of the rock group Karmina, have been performing since they were youngsters. In June, they each graduated with degrees in music from USC. Now they live at home, play all over town and are looking for a record deal.

Sylvie Yarza is a painter from France. She came to Los Angeles for space, both spiritual and physical (her average painting is 10 feet by 12 feet). But getting into a gallery when you lack connections isn't easy. She works three jobs, sings French songs in a cafe at night and lives in a condo too small for her work.

Michael Brunt and Patrick Marston want to take turns giving each other time to work on their art (Marston is a painter and Brunt is a singer-songwriter). Marston has sold a few paintings and has a gallery show on the horizon, so Brunt figures he should go first. They need to save $20,000 to afford to give Marston a year off. Then it will be Brunt's turn to put together a CD.

Teka Lark Lo, a Los Angeles poet, is working the alternative machine with everything she's got. She goes to a handful of readings and other poetry events every week, writes a column for the online magazine Poetix and has her own listserv, "The Lo-down, a.k.a., Fleshy Candy." She also organizes poetry events in Los Angeles for Tupelo Press, the nonprofit Valley Contemporary Poets and other publishers. None of these are paying jobs. "You have to promote what you do and the genre as well. People have to know who you are. One of these days, I'm gonna get paid."

What does it take to be an artist in this day, in this town? At what point does an aspiring artist commit fully -- no turning back -- to his or her craft? And what, in the end, counts as success? Each artist must find his or her own answers, the path to which can be a bumpy one, full of unfulfilling day jobs, compromises in creativity and plans put on hold.

Whether finding a way to infiltrate the city's existing creative community or turning a deaf ear to criticism and rejection, the artistic spark finds a way to burn.

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Juggling jurisprudence

DERRICO, 34, is completely outside the literary establishment. "I don't even know any writers," he admits. He took nine months off after graduate school to write his first novel, a science fiction thriller called "Right Ascension." He wrote his second while working for the Department of Transportation in L.A. ("It was a government job," he says with a shrug.)

Then he started mass mailing agents whose names he'd taken from literary how-to guides and from the Internet. Nothing. "All I wanted was that foot in the door," he says. "I just wanted someone to read it." Finally, he paid $295 to a print-on-demand publisher. "I don't regret it," he says, remembering the first time he opened "Right Ascension" as a published book. "What's frustrating," he says, clearly discouraged, "is that the system isn't based on merit."

His work as a lawyer (unlike his government job) does not allow him time to write at home, much less at work. But Derrico is afraid, especially living in expensive L.A., to quit his day job. He writes in bits and pieces, mostly short stories.

"It's true," says Sandy Dykstra, head of one of Southern California's largest literary agencies, "connections help." But Dykstra still believes merit matters. "My biggest fiction seller last year, Tinling Choong's 'Firewife,' was pulled from a reject pile, a slush pile, by an intern. And we often go chasing after people based on stories in little magazines or articles they've written." Is it any harder to break in from Los Angeles? "There is still a prejudice against the West," Dykstra admits. "It's so easy for the people in New York to proclaim something 'regional.' But now there are so many new agents chasing authors, and so many small publishers, the position of writers is much improved."

Derrico has hired someone to send out his finished work but feels stymied by his all-consuming day job.

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Career building, city by city

YARZA is determined to put her art first. At 36, she carries her enormous abstract oil paintings with her each time she moves. Her paintings are all about movement; some she painted while on roller blades. "I don't want to recognize any of the shapes; I don't want any obvious figures. If I see one, I destroy it. I'm trying to create a new world with its own principles," she says, sitting in her Marina del Rey apartment surrounded by color.

Yarza has studied painting all her life. "I wanted to learn technique," she explains, but the teachers in France "all kept telling me that painting is dead." They talked about painting, it seems, more than they actually painted.

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